Fifty Miles Per Gallon Or Bust: 1981 VW Rabbit Diesel Vs 1989 Geo Metro

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Good morning, Autopians! Hope everyone had a good weekend. Mine was fine, except that I had to fill the gas tank on my daily-driver Corolla. Just shy of fifty bucks. Ouch. It’s no secret that when fuel prices rise, so does the demand for small, fuel-efficient cars, and drivers start considering options they hadn’t thought about in years, like the two we’re going to check out today. First, however, let’s check out last week’s final tally.

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Looks like the van has it. Must be Good-Lookin’ Sergey’s influence.

Now, when I was a kid in the late Seventies, I remember hearing my folks complain a lot about high gas prices. Their solution was to buy tiny cars that posted good fuel economy numbers, and use them for everything, even family road trips. You haven’t lived until you’ve toured the Rocky Mountains in a Fiat 128 sedan crammed full of a family of four and two weeks’ worth of luggage and souvenirs. We also had a VW Dasher with a diesel engine for several years; it was rated at 49 MPG highway, and I remember my dad trying everything he could think of to best that number and hit 50. I think he actually did it on one tank.

These days, thanks to modern engines, hybrid drivetrains, and aerodynamics, those sort of mileage figures are attainable with much roomier and nicer cars. But this is Shitbox Showdown, and we have a strict price cap. Is it possible to hit the magical 50 MPG figure and stay within budget? We’re going to look at a couple of little hatchbacks from days of yore that are both at least theoretically capable of it.

1981 Volkswagen Rabbit diesel – $1,000

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Engine/drivetrain: 1.6 liter diesel inline 4, 4 speed manual, FWD

Location: Bellingham, WA

Odometer reading: unknown

Runs/drives? Almost, but not quite

First, let me apologize on behalf of the seller for the terrible photos in this listing. I guess they were trying to keep the license plate number out of frame, but there are better ways to do it. If you’re really that worried about it (and I have never been able to understand why anyone should be), then throw a rag over the plate, or take two seconds in MS Paint to scribble it out, and let us see the damn car you’re trying to sell, would ya?

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But I digress. What we can see from these awful images is a fairly clean and rust-free Westmoreland-era Rabbit, complete with the square headlights that Jason dislikes so much. But it also looks refrehsingly stock; these days it seems the only way to find a cheap early water-cooled VW that hasn’t been “stanced” or otherwise ruined is to look for a diesel. The “tuners” don’t mess with them. Too slow, I guess.

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It does have this interesting bit of custom paintwork on the rear hatch, reminiscent of Evel Knievel’s outfit, which raises two questions: 1.) Why? and 2.) Why only there? I have to admit, I like it, I just… don’t get it.

(Ed Note: Wow. – JT

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Mechanically, this little Rabbit needs some help. It will run, the seller says, but the injection pump needs rebuilding, and the battery is dead. But these VW diesels are know for racking up a bazillion miles, even if it takes them a while to accumulate those miles, and the early Rabbit/Scirocco/Jettas are fun cars to chuck around, even with the slow-poke diesel motor. For only a grand, this car looks like it might be worth bringing back. And it’s already set up for biodiesel, if that’s your thing.

1989 Geo Metro – $2,500

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Engine/drivetrain: 1.0 liter inline 3, 5 speed manual, FWD

Location: Huntington Beach, CA

Odometer reading: 144,000 miles

Runs/drives? Yep

If you’d rather spend a little more and have something ready to drive away in, we have this first-year Geo Metro. These little three-cylinder wonders have been the butt of jokes over the years, but every time gas prices rise, it’s the Metro that has the last laugh. Prices go up, and a surprising number of them come out of the woodwork to be offered for sale. They seem to be aging more gracefully than anyone could have guessed, and were made of tougher stuff than we thought.

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This Metro, as a California car, doesn’t suffer from the rust issues that plague older cars in other parts of the country. The seller says they bought it to learn how to drive a stick, a noble use if there ever was one, and no longer needs it. I don’t know what’s under those strangely patriotic seat covers (kind of a theme today, I guess), but overall it looks like it’s in good condition. If you shampooed the carpets and took a buffer to that appliance-white paint, it would look pretty good for a 33 year old car, I bet.

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The seller says it runs well, and the Metro’s Suzuki three-cylinder has a good reputation, but it was made for a different time, when traffic was sparser, smaller, and slower. Driving a Metro in traffic these days would require flogging the almighty hell out of it to get up to speed, every time you merged onto a freeway. I don’t know how it would hold up to that. But as a cheap city runabout, it still seems like a good option.

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Shame about this cheap do-it-yourself window tinting, though. Hope you’re handy with a scraper; I don’t think it has a rear window defroster to ruin, at least.

And they they are: two ways to save money at the pump and on purchase. Which one would you pick?

 

Quiz maker

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46 Responses

  1. How in the actual testicles did 42% of you vote for the metro? That car is just waiting to become some monster truck’s shoe meat. The rabbit can run on oil dig out of a Jersey diner grease trap if the apocalypse comes to fruition and real diesel is unavailable. Always the diesel rabbit.. 42% of you need to eat a fart sandwich. Sorry.

  2. my 97 4 cylinder metro is still going. not quite 50mpg because it is an auto, but still pretty good.
    safer than a motorcycle and can hit 60mph fine.
    just needs a little more love for the rust issue.

    i vote geo

  3. rootwyrm nailed it this morning: $1k for the bunny is a major warning. About 20 years ago I was toying with making biodiesel and looked around for a diesel VW. Could NOT find one worth having under $1500. And my standards are pretty low. And I live in a not-flat area.
    I kinda wish I lived near enough to go and see just how bad it is

  4. My brother bought a new ’78 Golf I GTI and had all the GTI badges removed. We had fun times with all those ‘upgraded’ VW Golf C’s (read: (poor attempts at) body kit). I had several Golf I’s, though no diesel. I vote for the Rabbit just for remembering picking up a gearbox with my late buddy. It was for his ’72 Cadillac Sedan de Ville (hughe car for the Netherlands), it fitted in the back with the bench down and even my dog didn’t mind. She was a stray I took with me from Goa in India and she was whiter than white!

      1. and the timing belt change not much longer.. with an engine the size of a sewing machine, there is So.. Much.. Room under the hood. Loved my Metro, got 60mpg a couple of times.

  5. The license on the Metro expired in June 2020, so unless the owner has paid California to keep it “Inop” (unlikely) the lucky buyer will need to cover a couple years of fees to put it on the street. (Hey, maybe that’s why the Wabbit’s license plate is hidden from view?!) I think a skateboard would be a better option than either of them…

  6. You haven’t lived until you’ve toured the Rocky Mountains in a Fiat 128 sedan crammed full of a family of four and two weeks’ worth of luggage and souvenirs

    Closest I have was emergency braking a VAZ 2101 full of my sisters, my grandmother, HER sister and a trunk full of their auction purchases. The car ahead had slowed suddenly and I found to my dismay the overloaded VAZ didn’t respond quite as well as my unladden X-1/9 back home. I somehow managed to keep control and swerved the heavy Russian tank around the car ahead. I expected to get an earful from my grandmother but instead she gave me a big hug and praised me for what a fine job I had done.

    I love Grandma’s

    FWIW I also have memories about cruising the Sierras in a 76 hp Toyota Corolla sedan sporting an intermittent but prominent engine sputter filled with weeks worth of camping gear, my dad and his room-clearing gassy dog.

    That’s how I learned slipping the dog greasy Thanksgiving turkey leftovers isn’t a good idea.

  7. I owned a 1984 VW Rabbit “Wolfsburg Edition” with a gasoline engine and it was the biggest
    SH*TPILE I’ve ever owned!! That damn car left me stranded on the side of the road on a regular basis! 🙁

    So just for that very reason alone, I went with the Metro because it should be more dependable. And also because Gasoline is quite a bit cheaper per gallon than Diesel these days.

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